Is now the moment the humanitarian data revolution begins?

IOM staff speak with Syrian refugees before they are boarded onto buses and taken to be processed for resettlement. Photo by: International Organization for Migration / CC BY-NC-ND

Patrick Meier has noticed a change in his conversations with humanitarians. An innovator who co-founded UAViators, or, “the humanitarian UAV network,” Meier spent the last decade fighting resistance to new technologies.

Now, “from a discourse about whether we should” use a technology, the debate is “how do we make the most effective use of this,” he told Devex.

Nowhere is this attitude shift more evident than in the use of data in the humanitarian sphere. From real-time crisis information, to donor funding, to intervention effectiveness, the quantity, quality, and breadth of numbers being gathered has mushroomed.

The World Humanitarian Summit last month in Istanbul took that momentum and formalized it into a firm commitment that analysts and practitioners now say could be a turning point. Thirty of the world’s largest donors and aid agencies signed up to a “grand bargain” of 51 commitments meant to bridge the gap between needs and resources available. The first of those agreements is a commitment to “identifying and implementing a shared open-data standard and common digital platform which will enhance transparency and decision-making.”

Data underpins the grand bargain’s other commitments, as well, from moving more funds to local actors to increasing cash transfers. “It is an absolute prerequisite,” said Sophia Swithern, Development Initiatives’ head for humanitarian affairs. “They all require a better understanding of the baseline — where we are now.”

Many steps and processes within the humanitarian space are now moving to incorporate data, at various states of readiness.

Getting on board

Humanitarians largely stayed on the sidelines while the development industry began its own data transformation several years ago. The nature of the work didn’t lend itself to numerics, some argued.

“There is an emergency culture in which timeliness and effectiveness are seen as a trade-off,” said Kristin Sandvik, senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. For example, just a small fraction of recent impact evaluation studies — 100 out of 2,000 — took place in humanitarian settings, according to the International Rescue Committee.

A combination of technological improvements and real-world case studies has begun to unravel that logic. The arrival of real-time datasets and crowdsourcing applications matched humanitarian relief’s necessity for timeliness, including in natural disasters such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal.

Having watched with interest, and at times concern, how data has transformed the development space, humanitarians are now seeking to incorporate lessons learned — starting with the opportunity at hand.

“A really strong lesson from the development side is that [change happens] when you have political commitments that are time-bound and specific,” said Swithern. “What we have now from the grand bargain is exactly that.”

A world of data

As a tool, data is now applicable to nearly every step of the humanitarian chain — something that advocates hope will open up a new window into the sector’s operations.

On June 14, Patrick Meier will examine the changing face of global development at Devex World. Stay tuned for continuing coverage of Devex World and tune in for live coverage next Tuesday on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

That begins with funding. The grand bargain commits its signatories to publishing detailed figures about their spending and allocations within two years, using the International Aid Transparency Initiative standard, which was upgraded to include humanitarian work in 2014.

That common metrics alone will allow for a host of new analysis, said Swithern, whose organization’s Global Humanitarian Assistance initiative compiles what’s known about funding currently. For a start, it could allow donors to understand where the gaps are in a relief operation and where the space is already crowded. Such publicly available information could reduce the incentive to allocate based on political priorities or domestic constituencies, as taxpayers frown upon waste.

Needs on the ground can also be mapped in new ways, as Meier is exploring. UAVs can quickly help estimate refugee populations or flows of displacement, he said. They can map the damage caused by natural disasters more accurately than satellites.

“Lack of data is the biggest impediment to good policy,” Eloise Todd, ONE Campaign global policy director, told Devex at WHS. “We need a lot more transparency and data in real time on people on the move, but also resources — we need to understand more in real time where resources are going so we can understand crossovers, overlaps, gaps.”

A growing number of voices are also pushing humanitarians to test their interventions, including using the randomized controlled studies pioneered by development actors.

Leading that charge is the World Bank, which together with fellow multilateral development banks, for example, pledged at WHS to help boost data collection and evidence capacities to “strengthen the basis on which policies and programs are designed.”

Academics, however, also lag behind the development sector in terms of analyzing and collecting humanitarian data, said Sandvick. They’ll need to catch up — but also ask which development approaches are applicable or not in emergencies.

Shared when, where and with whom

If there is growing interest in data, however, some critics say there is little technical capacity to deal with it — both in terms of policy but also on the crucial question of data security. Many humanitarian organizations still lack an official data policy, and the encryption and privacy know-how to back it, Sandvick said.

Some of the gaps could be as simple as a lack of qualified staffing, according to a 2015 report by the Digital Humanitarian Network. “Finding individuals that can do the data management and analytics as well as being effective and creative communicators and leaders is rare and it is not a common role that already exists within organization,” the report notes.

Yet neither are there internationally agreed upon standards for data protection in humanitarian work. Instead, the space has been populated by voluntary codes of conduct for particular interventions. Meier, who helped author one such code for UAVs, sees outreach as key to getting adherence.

His primary concern, he told Devex, is private companies who may not understand humanitarian principles and data privacy. “The opportunity here is for us to educate private companies that are involved … on how they should behave and should not behave,” Meier said.

One consideration, for example, would be whether private sector companies involved in relief operations should use data collected for commercial purposes — whether that’s research and development or market analysis. Informed consent may also be challenging when data is collected remotely. Meier says getting the local community involved and on board is key, something the grand bargain also emphasizes.

Who are humanitarians?

Technical and policy considerations aside, one obstacle to accelerating data use is more reflective. Radical transparency in the industry will force hard questions about what is working and what isn’t — how organizations are set up and how operations are run.

It may accelerate the move toward local organizations, for example.

“Now there is a new front opening in the struggle for accountability,” said Sandvick of PRIO. “This is going to give local NGOs an opportunity to show that they can do relief well, and often at a price that is more reasonable than international organizations can do.”  

Beneficiaries may be among those pushing hardest for change as more data becomes publicly available. Refugees from the Syrian crisis, for example, are often highly connected and highly sophisticated technology users. They will be watching ever closer as the data revolution unfolds.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.